Friday, December 05, 2008

More SBL Dating Discussion

April DeConick responded to my paper, Dating the Crucial Sources in Early Christianity (Handout; Blog Series on Dating), at this year's SBL Annual Meeting, in the second meeting of a new consultation on Cross, Resurrection and Diversity in Early Christianity, and now she offers some useful reflections on that response on her Forbidden Gospels blog, SBL Memories 2: Dating Our Sources. One of the things I like about April DeConick's writing is that she often gets me thinking -- she has a great way of approaching subjects from a distinctive angle.

In the current post, April speaks of division in the academy and I think the implication is that we are on different sides of that divide. One side uses "older models" that are now "being seriously questioned" while April emphasizes "three major shifts in the field" that "must be taken very seriously" (though she goes on to enumerate four). In spite of the talk about division, there are actually several areas here where we are in agreement. In each of the four categories, I will begin with our agreement and then make clear where we differ. Let me add a quick word too on "older models", to use April's term. I too am in favour of questioning older models, though they are not always the same ones that April wishes to question; sometimes April works with some older models that I wish to question. And sometimes, of course, the old wine is good.

(1). As April mentioned at the session, she agrees with my post-70 dating for Mark and so too for Matthew, Luke and John. This is an important agreement because it establishes a working model for dating the crucial works, Paul well before 70, the Gospels after. April's sketch, however, expands to inclusion of hypothetical sources and earlier versions of documents, which I avoided in favour of discussing the materials to which our texts bear witness. Unlike me, April is conservative on the existence of Q, and even speaks of different versions of the text, and their provenance. I am also sceptical about the existence of kernel Thomas. I have not done enough work on James and the Didache to express a firm opinion on whether or not they post-date 70. So April's pre-70 block is much more richly populated than mine. I would love to be able to share her confidence in that area, but I remain sceptical about the survival of key materials from the earliest period.

A further difference is that the model I discussed in the paper was a genealogical one. Where April organizes documents into groups, I attempted to sketch sequence, Galatians post-dating 1 Corinthians, Matthew post-dating Mark, Luke post-dating Matthew, John post-dating the Synoptics and so on. The reason that this kind of work might be helpful is that it can map the evolution and development of ideas from one literary work to another. Working on relative dating in this way is tough because we simply have to get our hands dirty engaging in study that a lot of us would rather avoid, Synoptic Problem, Pauline chronology, John's relationship to the Synoptics and so on. But the potential pay off is major and the work is worthwhile.

(2). April's second point, about textual criticism, echoes my own warnings on this subject, which I am happy to repeat:
It is easy to engage in this kind of discussion without thinking through the broader issues of what it means to talk about “texts” and “literary works” in antiquity. It is a somewhat hackneyed to point out the obvious facts that none of the autographs have survived and that there were no printing presses, but textual critics rightly remind us to behave like we actually know that that is the case. Too often, we lapse into treating our scholarly constructs as if they are the actual artefacts that they can only aspire to be. At the very least, we need to keep reminding ourselves in discussions like this that we are not dealing with fixed points and known entities but with reconstructions and approximations. (3)
Nevertheless, with the appropriate cautions in place, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the texts are all we have. The situation is no different here than it is for any other set of ancient texts. We are dealing with manuscript witnesses. Indeed, in many respects the situation is a great deal better for scholars of early Christianity because of the relative earliness of the textual evidence as well as the richness of the manuscript deposit. We have to work with what we have, and what we have is pretty good.

April offers a valuable caution against "basing our conclusions on 'same' words here and there", but as I mentioned in the session in response, this is why we should also look at patterns of agreement and disagreement, tracing parallels in structure, order, theme, motif and imagery as well as the more minor parallels in wording. My own caution in this area, previously expressed in discussions of the Synoptic Problem, and especially of the Minor Agreements, is that one should be wary of appealing to conjectural emendation as a means of resisting texts that are difficult for one's theory, not least given the fact that absent textual evidence is as likely to have caused further problems for one's preferred theory as it is to have provided solutions.

(3)-(4): I will take these together since they are closely related. I sympathize with the desire for memory experiments but I am highly sceptical of our ability to recreate the necessary conditions for providing useful information on the way that memory worked in the first century. As I mentioned in the session, one of my favourite television programmes is Doctor Who, and in a recent episode, the doctor and Donna went to Pompei in 79. I would have loved to have joined them and to conduct some experiments there. But as I also mentioned in the session, there are indeed useful experiments that we can do, using the texts that we have. As some of my readers will know, I have been an advocate for developing tests on Synoptic (and other related) theories with a view to seeing whether they work or not. Given our current state of knowledge, and tools available, serious work on the ancient texts we have is preferable to experiments on our contemporaries.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

We can study medicine, clothing, religion, language, law, nutrition, and architecture of the first century (and countless other disciplines). Why not also memory?

Does the cognition and psychology literature suggest that memory functions differently among cultures, and classes today, or has changed over the last few centuries?

If not then there is no problem, we can assume it functioned similarly a mere 2000 yrs ago. If so then we can model the conditions of the first century as best we can in terms of cultural influences, literacy, use of oral and written media, etc and use that as an approximation.

The model will, as models do, evolve over time as research and methods improve. But I should think it would be useful. Not quite as useful as the Tardis, but more useful than guessing or asserting how memory worked without the research to back it up.